Education can be affordable for everyone, no matter their background and the type of school they hope to attend. The U.S. Department of Education administers billions of dollars of financial aid to students each year in the form of grants, loans, and work-study, but that’s only half the story. Students can also get financial aid from any number of other sources, especially if they’re determined to find scholarships and make college affordable. Once you know how much you received, you may be surprised at how much your out-of-pocket costs decrease.

Financial aid can come from any number of sources: the federal government; your home state; your school; and private organizations, banks, and individuals. Aid can be awarded to a student for two reasons. Either, a student needs the money to make attending school feasible (need-based), or the student’s academic, extracurricular, or essay-writing success have won them the money (merit-based). Financial aid comes in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study.

Before you apply to a college, it can be helpful to know how much you would be required to pay out of pocket each year should you be accepted and choose to enroll. What you are required to pay may vary year to year, but you can get a good estimate of your costs by estimating your financial need and understanding how much financial need a school meets with financial aid. Some schools may meet all of a student’s need, in which case your out-of-pocket costs are going to be no more than you and your family can afford; others meet only a portion of a student’s need. Calculate these figures before submitting your applications.

Applying for financial aid doesn’t have to be overwhelming. As long as males over the age of 18 register for the Selective Service, they will be eligible for federal financial aid (there is no such requirement for females). Then, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and, if required, the CSS Profile or any other institutional paperwork. Once you’ve finished the big stuff, you can explore private scholarships and, as a last resort, private loans.

Your financial aid letter details how much money you’ve received from a particular institution. It will explain how much, if any, you’ve received in grants, let you know if you’ve qualified for work-study, and list your limit for federal loans. You do not have to take out all of the loans that you’ve been awarded. Also listed should be the cost of attendance at the institution (tuition, room and board, fees). Subtract the free money you’ve been awarded (grants and scholarships) to determine how much you are actually liable for.

There are a lot of rumor floating around about financial aid. It’s a hard topic to tackle, and there’s a lot that goes into a financial aid decision, so it’s easy to get confused. You should be aware, though, that most of what you hear is untrue. Students from all income brackets who take the time to fill out the FAFSA are often rewarded for their efforts. Apply for financial aid early and apply every year! Your award may surprise you.